Nor is it a complete picture of the school system. CMSD also has success stories to brag about, particularly its "new and innovative" schools like MC2, which sent graduates of its 2012 class to Harvard, Stanford and Case Western Reserve Universities, and John Hay High School, whose 2011-2012 PI score was number one in the state.
"These schools are not drill and kill — they offer an authentic learning experience where the students are highly engaged," says Gordon. "The climate of the school is not some rigid little prison where the kids are marched down the halls. They're warm and friendly."
How to replicate these learning environments? If the levy passes, Gordon is ready to implement the Cleveland Plan, a blueprint for reform that he forged in Columbus with the help of Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, Kasich, and state legislators.
According to Gordon, the plan's biggest change is in reforming teacher tenure rules to allow more flexibility in hiring and firing. "At Tremont Montessori, we laid off most of the Montessori teachers," he explains, noting that such layoffs tend to sweep away young, newer teachers, who are always laid off first. Tremont Montessori is rated "Effective" and often has a waiting list for new students. But as Gordon notes, "It's hard to maintain a good Montessori model if you don't have trained teachers."
The Cleveland Plan allows the district to retain high-performing and specialized teachers during layoffs, and make tenure and seniority only secondary factors in decisions. It also lets CMSD pay teachers a differentiated salary based on performance, special skills and duties (often called merit pay, something that has long been controversial with unions). Finally, it allows CMSD to create a longer school day and school year, mandates parent involvement, and creates new partnerships with high-performing charter schools.
MC2 already incorporates elements of the plan, like an extended school day. It operates year-round, and offers internships and mentoring programs with General Electric employees at Nela Park, where its main campus is located. Another campus is at the Great Lakes Science Center, a natural fit with the school's emphasis on STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
"We integrate science and math by applying them to real-world problems," says Principal Jeffrey McClellan, noting that MC2 students designed and created the star that will top the Christmas tree on Public Square this year.
Still, McClellan admits that the school offers a special environment for students who want to be there. Though they come from diverse, often low-income backgrounds, they have made deliberate choices. "There are no qualifications to get in, but there is a lottery system, and they must say they want to come," McClellan explains. "They are committing to a different kind of education."
So are students at John Hay, which offers another example of the kind of model that Gordon hopes to spread across the district. Students there must apply and have a GPA of 3.0 to be admitted.
"We've formed instructional teams with the student at the center of them," says Carol Lockhart, principal of John Hay's Early College program. "Imagine a bull's-eye. The student is the target and everything else is on the outside."
It helps that John Hay administrators have a waiver from the Cleveland Teachers Union allowing them to hire teachers based on skills and experience, not just seniority. So the school attracts not only the best and brightest students, but also the best teachers. Nonetheless, Gordon says that both John Hay and MC2 offer examples of what CMSD can do if the levy passes and district officials have more resources.
"We can learn things from our portfolio and successful schools across the country," he says. "When you create more autonomy for schools, when they're able to do more hiring at the local level instead of the district level, you achieve better results."